Chances are you know someone who has been struggling with self-harming behaviors. Whether they’re cutting themselves or starving themselves...the effects of these actions on the individual and their loved ones is beyond devastating. Naturally, this is a difficult topic and one that many people are uncomfortable discussing.
That’s why it can be hard to know what to say when someone confides in you about the struggles they are facing. It’s okay to not know what to say. In fact, the greatest thing you can do is simply LISTEN and be there for your loved one. Many who self-harm find relief when they are able to share their pain with a supportive, non-judgmental friend or family member. Here are some helpful tips to help you be a supportive friend during this time:
1) Try Your Best Not To Take Things Personally... Sometimes self-injurers seem to say hurtful things with the intention of making others feel bad so that they won’t feel as badly themselves. But that’s not the way it works. The remarks they make, such as "I hate myself," are meant to express their feelings of rejection and pain rather than to insult others. So if you hear something like that, try not to take it personally. If you do and respond with a non-supportive comment like saying, “You shouldn’t hate yourself because you do so many good things in your life!” or “It’s not healthy for you to think badly about yourself,” then they may just end up cutting themselves even more (among other behaviors) in an attempt to get back at you for being so critical or judgmental.
2) Put Yourself In Their Shoes... Try to put yourself in your loved one’s shoes. Think about what you would do in a similar situation. Would you want someone to tell you how not to do the things you were doing or would you want them to support you in any way that they could? Instead, it's more helpful to figure out what painful emotions they are experiencing and discover solutions together in a supportive manner.
3) Don’t Treat Them Like A Victim... If someone close to you is self-injuring, there is a good chance this has been going on for a while and it may be hard for them to stop once they start. But don’t treat them like a victim who cannot help themselves. Just because they are self-injuring doesn’t stop them from being a good teammate, friend, student, employee, or family member if they choose to do so.
4) Try Not To Make It All About You... If you find yourself talking about the struggles of self-injurers (or anything else) in general, try to focus on their situation and how you can best help them move forward in it. This will help put their needs above your own and show them that you care about them as a person. Discussing with them how their behaviors are affecting you and the rest of the family usually makes things worse. Unfortunately, many times they are looking for an excuse to further punish or hate on themselves, and making it about you gives them that opportunity.
5) Don’t Ignore Their Feelings... If your loved one is self-injuring, they may want to hear from you a lot. They may be in desperate need of reassurance or help, so don’t ignore their calls or messages. As long as they are keeping you up to date on their condition, treat them the same as you would if they weren’t self-injuring. You can take things slow and reassure them over everything is going to be okay and you are going to help them through this by being supportive and making sure they find the help they need to get better.
6) You Are Not Responsible For Their Feelings... While it’s great that you want to support your loved one, odds are they are the ones who are responsible for their feelings and the self-injuring behaviors. Although you can be supportive, don’t do things that go beyond your level of comfort or safety. If they ask you to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable (like physically force or shame them into doing something), then find a way to be there for them in a different way.
7) Help Them Connect With Professional Help... Anyone who is struggling with self-injuring needs professional help.
It is important for you to know that people who struggle with self-harm get better all the time! There is help. There is hope.
Christian T. Hill, MA, LPC
Alpine Connection Counseling